Chicago Underground Film Festival | Festival | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Festival

Chicago Underground Film Festival

comment

The 11th annual Chicago Underground Film Festival continues Friday through Tuesday, August 20 through 24, at the 3 Penny. Tickets are $5 for matinees, $7 for screenings after 7:00. Festival passes are $75, and a $35 pass admits you to ten films. To purchase advance tickets call 866-468-3401; for more information call 773-525-3449. Films marked with an asterisk (*) are highly recommended.

FRIDAY, AUGUST 20

* Peep "TV" Show

I headed the critics' jury at Rotterdam this year that gave its top prize to Yutaka Tsuchiya's exceedingly weird "fiction documentary" video about teenagers drifting around Shibuya, Tokyo's fashionable shopping district. Bewildering in the best sense, this kinky low-tech digital video is fascinating for its martianlike characters--dressed like fairy-tale figures and preoccupied with obscure rituals--and its singular use of space, which combines the claustrophobia imposed by small cubicles, TV screens, and surveillance cameras with the vast exterior reaches of the urban landscape, confounding our usual grasp of inside and out, public and private. Imagine Blade Runner restaged inside someone's closet. In Japanese with subtitles. 98 min. (JR) (5:30)

Brave New York

Richard Sandler (The Gods of Times Square) takes to the streets of New York's East Village and simply lets the people talk; the resulting collage of testimony lovingly but unsentimentally affirms the neighborhood's rep for nurturing outsiders--street poets and protesters, drunks and drag queens. Halfway through 9/11 hits and the film turns elegiac; taken as a whole, the video is unexpectedly moving. Three more videos round out the program: Anthie Domi's Street Cuts (2003), which manipulates footage of street life; Jon Nothin's video God Hates America (2003), which captures a Christian protest of the New York Underground Film Festival; and One Nation Under Tommy, in which five video artists reshoot a cologne commercial based only on a written description, an experiment that reveals how closely some advertising resembles avant-garde filmmaking. 75 min. (HSa) (6:00)

Seafarers

British documentarian Jason Massot produced, directed, and shot this melancholy rumination on the loneliness of the long-distance sailor. A Swede deserted by his family, a disillusioned Polynesian, an embittered Liberian, and an angry, profane Croat all work different boats but share the psychic scars of their interminable sea travel. Their sense of solitude is so entrenched that they derive scant pleasure from leave in Rotterdam, whose industrial docks, cafes, shops, trams, and downtown streets seem weirdly underpopulated. Will Oldham provides the video's haunting acoustic-guitar score. In English and subtitled Croatian and Tuvaluan. 78 min. (AG) (7:15)

I Was Born But...

This 16-millimeter documentary takes its title from the Japanese silent by Yasujiro Ozu, which offered a child's limited perspective on adulthood, but director Roddy Bogawa inverts that dynamic, delivering a middle-aged look at youth. Starting with the death of rocker Joey Ramone, he muses on his devotion to the LA punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s, his relationship with his father, and his ethnic identity. His deliberately flat approach favors extremely long static shots (of buildings, of his father practicing his golf swing, of himself reading old music magazines), as if they were inherently profound, but his themes never come together, which leaves this teetering between the hypnotic and the soporific. 90 min. (HSa) (7:30)

Anonymous

Low-budget DV-maker Todd Verow casts himself as a movie theater manager in a stable relationship with a live-in lover. He seeks out anonymous sex on the Internet and in public toilets, where the roommate catches him, beats him, and leaves him on the floor with "Fuck Here" written across his ass. Soon he's homeless and unemployed, but still cruising. The sex is hard-core, joyless, and--in the absence of character development or directorial skill--even more meaningless for us than for the characters. The frequency with which Verow doffs his clothes made me wonder if I wasn't looking at a sub-rosa personal ad. 83 min. (FC) (9:00)

Q

A Ray Harryhausen-ish remake of The Giant Claw from exploitation maestro Larry Cohen (God Told Me To), about a winged serpent of Aztec legend that terrorizes New York and encamps at the top of the Chrysler Building. Cohen's obviously having fun with the cheesy clay animation, and Michael Moriarty delivers an inspired, whacked-out performance as a small-time operator who tries to turn the monster into his own private bonanza, but the rest of this 1982 feature is curiously disengaged and sloppy. With Candy Clark, Richard Roundtree, and David Carradine as a zombielike detective. Also known as The Winged Serpent. Cohen will attend the screening. R, 93 min. (PG) (9:15)

Cavalcade of Stars

A variety of surreal shorts. The toughest to watch is Gretchen Hildebran's beyond-edgy 2003 documentary Carve, about two knife-wielding artists who use their own bodies as canvases. Allan Roysdon combines noir and melodrama in The Troll, a shrill exercise in drag-queen camp. More fun is Guy Maddin's Canadian Fancy, Fancy Being Rich, which combines elements of Viennese-style operetta and trashy romance novels. But the weirdest is Marcel DeJure's The Tooth (2003, in English and subtitled Spanish), about a Hispanic politician advised by marionettes and an opponent who feeds a shock-haired accordion player a hallucinogen-spiked tooth. 73 min. (AG) (10:30)

The Myth

From the Czech Republic comes this video documentary (2003, 61 min.) by Simon Safranek, about the fanatical followers of gloom-rocker Nick Cave. Also on the program is Lisa Barcy's 13-minute video animation The Guilt Trip; or The Vaticans Take a Holiday. (10:45)

SATURDAY, AUGUST 21

Abstract Expressions

Short experimental videos and celluloid-to-video transfers. 77 min. (Noon)

Popaganda: The Art and Subversion of Ron English

Painter Ron English has become a darling of the anticonsumerism movement with his outlaw billboards, which subvert corporate advertising with savage wit (among his images are a grotesquely obese Ronald McDonald and a Baby Joe Camel for tots). This video documentary by Pedro Carvajal gives English the hagiographic treatment, positioning him as a renegade and following him on his illegal raids to erect billboards. Yet English's conception of himself as an outsider to the art world doesn't really square with his enormous financial success, and Carvajal seems unwilling to explore the tension between his anticorporate stance and, for instance, his work as a painter of album covers. A little more distance would have made this more provocative. 80 min. (HSa) (1:45)

Wavelength 3-D

Ben Coonley's 2003 video re-creates and and riffs on Michael Snow's 1967 structural film Wavelength. This time around, the super-slow, 45-minute zoom-in on a loft space is treated with digital filters and other tricks, which don't add much to the original and are likely to induce headaches. I'd rather revisit the original. Also on the program but at the other end of the pacing spectrum are two videos edited nearly frame by frame to create flickering images: Paul Bush's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde muses on psychosis, and Les Leveque's Pulse Pharma Phantasm says heaven knows what about drug advertising. Least interesting is The Remote Controller, an overlong video by People Like Us that samples old educational films in the manner of a dance remix. 66 min. (HSa) (2:00)

Alien Encounters

Short 16-millimeter films. In Lisa Barcy and Jim Trainor's whimsical clay animation The Ordovicians, critters from the Paleozoic era wriggle and gurgle in amorphous ecstasy. Daichi Saito's black-and-white Chiasmus (2003) shows various body parts in extreme close-up; their angular, geometric quality is disrupted when Saito pulls back, revealing the curve of a breast or buttock. Tony Gault edits together found footage for Not Too Much Remember (2003), which looks at the CIA's LSD experiments on human guinea pigs. And Marie Losier's playfully disorienting Electrocute Your Stars features the stream-of-consciousness musings of experimental filmmaker George Kuchar. Five more shorts complete the program, which totals 69 minutes. (JK) (3:30)

* Underworld Cinema

Independent film scholar Noel Lawrence will introduce this program of shorts by the mysterious and iconoclastic filmmaker J.X. Williams (Lawrence's alter ego, according to some). Williams's Peep Show, purportedly made in 1965, spells out a fantastic Mafia plot to hook Frank Sinatra on heroin and thereby exploit his friendship with President Kennedy. Told from the perspective of a gangster spilling his guts to a cabbie, it weaves together crime-scene stills with clips from B movies, porn films, and Otto Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm to create a vulgar noir thriller. With three other shorts by Williams. 91 min. (JK) (3:45)

* Monster Road

Clay animator Bruce Bickford has shied away from the business side of filmmaking, hunkering down in his basement studio near Seattle to obsess over a world of terrible beauty, a psychedelic riot of endlessly transmogrifying shapes. This eerie and affectionate portrait by Brett Ingram includes glimpses of Bickford's unseen films, different from previous work showcased in his collaborations with Frank Zappa, Baby Snakes (1979) and The Amazing Mister Bickford (1987). A Vietnam veteran, Bickford lives with his father, a former ICBM engineer now stricken with Alzheimer's disease, and from early on the animator's visions reflected fear of nuclear annihilation (a fallout shelter on nearby Monster Road served as inspiration). Today his dread of oblivion is more clearly linked to the body's natural decay, yet through art, philosophy, and the mellowing of age, he and his father seem to have struck a truce with the cosmos. 80 min. (AG) (5:15)

Inflated: The Blow-Up Doll Films of Steve Hall and Cathee Wilkins

It's hard to know what to make of these seven videos of copulating inflatable dolls: they have the obsessiveness of fetish porn, but that's undercut by childish humor and the high-pitched hysteria of the voices dubbed by video makers Hall and Wilkins. The vinyl protagonist of Hambone removes a bone from a ham and fucks the resulting aperture; Lick My Pussy, Dog pairs an inflatable girl with an actual dog. In Deep Africa two girls named Summer and Candy order an alien through the mail and receive an anatomically complete E.T. in a poop-littered cage. He promptly tries to phone home, then chews up Candy's dildo, but later leaves her fully satisfied. 71 min. (FC) (5:30)

Certain Women

A low-rent version of Erskine Caldwell's trashy 1957 novel of the same title, shot on various cheap video formats and cast with nonprofessionals. This small-town tale about working-class women was inspired by the filmmakers' academic interest in the story's alleged protofeminism. Peggy Ahwesh codirected with Bobby Abate; a talented and adventurous filmmaker on other outings, she seems limited this time by her pedagogical agenda. The picture also suffers from a tendency to slip in and out of period. 75 min. (JR) (7:00)

* Weird and Wonderful

The title promises strange new experiences, but many of these short videos seem heavily influenced by earlier works. Timothy Greenberg's hilariously deadpan La Puppe (2003) recasts Chris Marker's experimental time-travel narrative La jetee with a stuffed dog, and Patrick Hasson's droll Dead Broke (2003) uses a fish-eye lens to tell the Shining-esque tale of a man menaced by kitties. Others are less interesting: Matt Luem and Greg Fiering's Soldiers Under Command, about the Christian band Stryper, recalls Jeff Krulik's cult favorite Heavy Metal Parking Lot initially but loses focus as it develops, and Bob Ray's Hillbilly Doomsday borrows from ultracheap 70s horror but is too broadly drawn. The ratio of hit to miss is about even, but this is worth seeing if only for the Greenberg short and the Bill Plympton animation Guard Dog. 81 min. (HSa) (7:30)

God Told Me To

It's a pity that Larry Cohen's talents as a director don't match his audacity as a screenwriter--this infinitely perverse 1976 thriller could have been a sleaze classic. But as it stands, it's too confused and clumsy to be much more than a novelty item. To give away the plot is to divest it of most of its interest, so let's just say the obvious twist in this story--of a wave of mass murders striking New York--occurs in the first 20 minutes; from then on it gets curiouser and curiouser. Alternate title: Demon. With Sandy Dennis, Tony Lo Bianco, Deborah Raffin, Sylvia Sydney, and Andy Kaufman as a cop. Cohen will attend the screening. 91 min. (DK) (8:45)

Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story

Based in a ramshackle house near Portland, Oregon, do-it-yourself mavericks Fred and Toody Cole have been touring for decades as part of the hard-rock band Dead Moon, making and distributing their own records as they raised a family together. Cole made his singing debut in Las Vegas at age 15 (billed as "the white Stevie Wonder"), but his fleeting fame as part of the psychedelic Lollipop Shoppe soured him on show business and started him on his eccentric course. This loving profile by Jason Summers and Kate Fix uses the Coles' story to trace the evolution of rock from the early 60s to the present. 88 min. (JK) (9:00)

Wizard People, Dear Readers

Austin actor and comic-book writer Brad Neely delivers an iconoclastic audio commentary to the movie version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), with revisionist, free-associative riffs that suggest the late Seattle performance poet Steven Jesse Bernstein (or perhaps the demon spawn of Wallace Shawn and Neil Young). Feverish and profane, Neely reimagines young Harry as a prepubescent alcoholic depressive, the giant Hagrid as Hagar the Horrible, Professor Snape as the she-devil Snake, and the head of Hogwarts as the "near-dead Dumbledore," who's eager to drag Harry along with him to the afterworld. Bizarre digressions fill up the slow spots in the movie, and Neely's wicked put-downs and skewed homoerotic view of the students' Quidditch match are subversively funny. 150 min. (AG) (10:30)

V Is for Video

These experimental videos are all over the map, though they share a sense of humor that will seem either hip or snarky depending on your taste for postmodern irony. On the upside, Ben Coonley's "Post Pony Trilogy" looks like children's educational television conceived by a demented art-school student, warped but with an oddball charm. William Scott Rees and JoEllen Martison's Digits is an inventive hybrid: a mock history of 70s- style Euro-terrorists that turns into a music video. On the downside, Kent Lambert's 5 Video Hits is too fragmented and the Halflifers' zombie riff Afterlifers: Walking and Talking is far too long. The odd film out is Darrin Martin's Monograph in Stereo, a more serious and unsettling experimental piece about Martin's loss of hearing in one ear. 78 min. (HSa) (10:45)

SUNDAY, AUGUST 22

Cavalcade of Stars

See listing for Friday, August 20. (Noon)

Docu-Mania

Six short documentaries. Incensed by nocturnal emissions of acrid smoke from a nearby factory, Dorian Breuer made his video The Air We Breathe in Pilsen, in which he marches over to the factory looking for answers and gets the expected runaround (one employee claims that the smoke is only steam). The Mexican legend of La Llorona, a desperate woman who drowned her children, provides the thematic backdrop for Jenny Stark and Mark Yzaguirre's Floods, Ghosts and Contamination, about a cluster of towns near San Antonio that have been plagued by man-made environmental chaos. Matt McCormick's video American Nutria traces the history of the eponymous aquatic rodent in the U.S. Imported from Argentina in the 1930s and '40s to supplant the waning supply of beaver pelts, nutrias have since become a colossal nuisance, chomping through the vegetation of the Louisiana waterways. 79 min. (JK) (1:45)

Back to the Land

The natural world appears unnatural in many of these 16-millimeter shorts (some transferred to video). Tanner Almon's Methods of Self Defense Against Scorpions (2003) follows a beleaguered tenant in his conflict with unseen arachnids. The title of Luis Sanchez's Umbral comes from his shadowy negative exposures of southwestern panoramas; they're evocative in their neon colors but often too dense to read. David Ellsworth's Husks (2002) contemplates the serene beauty of rural Iowa, its reverie punctuated by odd slow-motion shots like one of a farmer mowing his backyard right up to the edge of a cornfield. By far the most accomplished is T.S.H.: Estrendristas by the prodigiously talented Jesse Lerner; suggested by Mexico's first radio broadcast, it merges the filmmaker's interests in history, archival footage, and popular manias. 85 min. (AG) (2:00)

Private Moments

Nine videos in varying styles. The best of the more abstract pieces, Kurtis Hough's appealing Stumble Then Rise On Some Awkward Morning, sets chandelierlike shapes adrift in a seductively vast space. The found-footage genre is represented by Vanessa Renwick's Britton, South Dakota, an often affecting montage of kids and babies posing for the camera circa 1938. The superimposed sensuous flesh in Leighton Pierce's A Private Happiness (2003) suggests the story of a couple--but what's with all those shots of the Empire State Building? Sergio Batiz's Danzante documents an amazing traditional "feather dance" performed by Zapotec Indians in Mexico; Nadav Kurtz's noirish Wrecker (2003), about a man held captive by a mysterious woman, is marred by overripe stylistic flourishes, including a trip into the protagonist's ear canal. 82 min. (FC) (3:30)

Work It

An intriguing program of shorts with mechanical themes. Robert Todd's Watch documents an elderly couple whose gentle fussing soothes like the ticking of the timepieces they repair. Both Eric Ostrowski's Golden Daisy and Jesse McLean's Celebration of Lights are eye-pleasing experiments with vibrant color, the former a manipulation of the film emulsion, the latter a dancing kaleidoscope of electric lights. Joel Schlemowitz's Loudmouth Collective/Ugly Duckling Presse celebrates the printed and spoken word in its playful account of young cultural guerrillas who send up the tedious book tours of established authors through an alternative publication and a series of staged "antireadings." 79 min. (AG) (3:45)

In the Shoes of the Dragon

In 2000 director Hronn Sveinsdottir entered herself in the Miss Iceland pageant, filming behind the scenes as she experienced firsthand the business of marketing beauty. What the engaging young woman didn't anticipate was losing her detachment: before long she decides she's in this to win. She enlists her mother as camera operator, but mom can't help but voice her misgivings as her headstrong, outspoken daughter sets a course for heartbreak. It's astonishing that the pageant granted Sveinsdottir and codirector Arni Sveinsson such unfettered access--though the organizers later sued and won a temporary ban against the release of this 2002 documentary. In Icelandic with subtitles. 94 min. (AG) (5:15)

* The Nest

Life is not good in James Fotopoulos's 2003 feature, one of the strongest works yet from this prolific young Chicagoan. Its enigmatic narrative centers on a young married couple whose bland midwestern home is intruded upon by unexplained figures: another woman appears when the wife seems ill; a man tells the husband, "I know everything about you." Suggestive of post-9/11 paranoia, these proceedings are rendered positively hellish by the coupling of static images with a wide range of intrusive sounds--appliance noises, animal cries, a howling baby. For Fotopolous, existence itself is a trap; his protagonists seem stuck in their bodies and rooms as time ticks away. 78 min. (FC) (5:30)

Retro-Activity

Short films and videos. 72 min. (7:00)

* Elevator Movie

Crudely assembled but craftily written, this black-and-white 16-millimeter feature begins as a character comedy and gradually flowers into surreal fantasy and existential drama. An apartment-building elevator stalls between floors, stranding a spooky 26-year-old virgin (writer-director Zeb Haradon) who's obsessed with anal sex and an alluring born-again Christian (Robin Ballard) who has rejected the sexual adventurism of her youth. Days and then weeks pass without rescue, yet the two are sustained by a magical bag of groceries that's refilled every day, leaving them free to chafe against each other and get tangled in their own neuroses. Technically this is a mess, with a laughably fake set and a sound track that seems to have been edited with kindergarten scissors, but the story is eccentric and darkly funny. 95 min. (JJ) (7:15)

* Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

First-time documentary makers Heather Whinna and Vickie Hunter plunge into the Christian rock scene and come back with a wealth of sincere and engaging backstage interviews, shot at various Chicago clubs and at the Cornerstone Christian Music Festival in Bushnell, Illinois. The musicians talk about the tension between their faith and their profession, with its obvious lures of sex and drugs and the insidious temptation to glory in oneself. Even more interesting is the unacknowledged tension between the directors, both secular indie-rock scenesters, and the hard-core fundamentalists who denounce abortion and homosexuality. Whinna and Hunter soft-pedal the conflict by privileging indie-friendly (i.e., liberal) bands like Duvall, Pedro the Lion, and the Danielson Famille, though the arresting scenes of mass prayer are treated like martian landings. 95 min. (JJ) (8:30)

* Shock and Awe

This densely packed program of eight experimental videos focuses on national affairs, particularly the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq, and it's more varied and less preachy than one might expect. The formal approaches run the gamut from near abstract exercises in image manipulation to simple recutting of found footage. Joon Soo Ha's Just (2002) degrades film footage of a waving flag by reproducing each frame first on a color printer and then on a photocopier, to haunting effect. Alain Pelletier's World Trade Opera (2003), the longest item, matches roughed-up images of urban and rural landscape with the periodic reading of disturbing environmental statistics. Other pieces are less successful, but overall the program is quite good. 85 min. (HSa) (9:00)

MONDAY, AUGUST 23

Alien Encounters

See listing for Saturday, August 21. (5:30)

Patriot Acts

Experimental film- and video makers speak the truth to power in this mixed bag of shorts. Lee Lanier's giddy Weapons of Mass Destruction uses goofy 3-D animation to illustrate punning political terms, and Aaron Valdez's hilarious States of the Union (1997) reduces a Clinton address to nothing but empty statistics and rapturous applause (a second segment featuring President Bush was unavailable for preview). This kooky preaching to the choir is no substitute for political insight, but there's something to be said for the disquieting abstraction and allusion of Kelly Reich-ardt's guilt-ridden Travis and Deborah Stratman's nightmarish Energy Country, both of which obliquely question the motives for the Iraq invasion. 79 min. (JJ) (6:00)

Docu-Mania

See listing for Sunday, August 22. (7:15)

* Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

See listing for Sunday, August 22. (7:30)

The Myth

See listing for Friday, August 20. (9:00)

* Elevator Movie

See listing for Sunday, August 22. (9:30)

Retro-Activity

See listing for Sunday, August 22. (10:45)

Work It

See listing for Sunday, August 22. (11:00)

TUESDAY, AUGUST 24

V Is for Video

See listing for Saturday, August 21. (5:30)

Private Moments

See listing for Sunday, August 22. (6:00)

Popaganda: The Art and Subversion of Ron English

See listing for Saturday, August 21. (7:15)

* Weapons of Mass Deception

Veteran independent media analyst Danny Schechter presents a comprehensive and devastating critique of the TV news networks' complacency and complicity in the war on Iraq. The video begins with a parody of Apocalypse Now that's as funny as anything by Michael Moore, but Schechter means business, and this quickly turns to a rigorous dissection of economic and political factors that have turned our major media outlets into conduits for Pentagon "mili-tainment." This is showing as a work in progress, and toward the end Schechter veers off into vague theories about U.S. ground forces targeting critical journalists (in particular the still unexplained shelling of the Palestine Hotel) and the networks exchanging friendly war coverage for favorable treatment in the FCC's media conglomeration hearings. But most of this is brilliantly argued and scrupulously documented, proving beyond a doubt that the Bush administration's retailing of its "master narrative" was a carefully orchestrated element of the war. A must-see. 104 min. (JJ) (7:45)

Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story

See listing for Saturday, August 21. (9:00)

Back to the Land

See listing for Sunday, August 22. (9:30)

In the Shoes of the Dragon

See listing for Sunday, August 22. (10:45)

* Weird and Wonderful

See listing for Saturday, August 21. (11:00)

Add a comment